Growth doesn’t come when things are going smoothly. And in my experience, “transformative” (I know…I hate that word too…because it’s overused and over-hyped) growth is usually born out of struggle and sacrifice and a steadfast commitment to something that is hard and challenging.
The reality is that most people avoid the one thing that gets them to those breakthrough moments. Hard work…that focused, committed discipline to “get it done,” when there are a hundred other things that you would rather be doing or that simply get in the way.
There are some real and present enemies to the “get it done” approach. Ironically, it’s much more exciting to think and dream about a big goal or an important endeavor. In fact, according to the research, the anticipation of an event or a particular accomplishment can be as powerful as the achievement itself. If we get a healthy dose of feel-good dopamine from dreaming of something bold and amazing, do we really need to actualize the dream?
The fact is that we can trick ourselves into thinking that we’re making real progress by creating a vision board, writing out our goals or talking about what we plan to do. Not that any of those things are bad; but the constant thinking and talking about our grand vision does not make it happen. We can get lulled into a false sense of accomplishment when we really haven’t “done” anything.
On the flip side, we can spiral into a sense of overwhelm. Our lack of real progress or real momentum can make us feel inadequate, unsure and more tentative. Perhaps this big dream of ours is too big. And we can certainly always pull out the “I’m too busy now” card. It’s so easy (and natural) to delay taking action and defer to excuses and rationalizations like “When the kids get through school, I will…,” or “When I pay off my debt, I will…” or “When I do some more research, I will…”
With an obscured path or an unclear vision, we can also default into a common malaise of doing nothing. Besides indulging in the occasional obsession or guilt-ridden internal drama, we may find that we constantly feel disappointed or frustrated. Perhaps you’ve embraced a series of excuses or rationalizations to why you’re not ready. Or maybe you beat yourself up with thoughts like, “I can’t believe I can’t get this off the ground. What is wrong with me? Why do I always fall short?” A sad but true realization comes with the research on willpower that concludes that the more you “beat yourself up” over your bad habits or sabotaging behavior, the more likely you are to repeat the cycle. Sucks…doesn’t it.
One of the biggest enemies to “get it done” and our self-sabotaging behavior is distraction. We all have our personal battles…whether it’s our addiction to social media, our preoccupation with Trumpsteria or countless other sirens that beckon us daily. I was listening to a podcast interview yesterday between Tim Ferris and Maria Sharapova, 5-time Grand Slam winner and Olympic silver medalist. From a very early age, Maria practiced. She lived and breathed tennis. It was part of her bigger purpose and she felt that calling from about the age of 7. So even though it was hard and lonely (she moved to the States with her father while her mother remained in Russia for two years because she didn’t have a visa), Maria did the hard work. She literally put her nose to the grindstone. Day in and day out. And she ultimately became one of the greatest female tennis players of her generation. Like so many other greats, she had to have “horse blinders” on to the many distractions that occupied so many of her colleagues (other young girls who were identified at an early age for their on-court potential).
The single most important thing that you can do to transform (there’s that word again) yourself is to learn how to FOCUS. In fact, in our world of constant interruptions, distraction and limited attention spans, I would argue that FOCUS is the holy grail and perhaps just as elusive.
I know…it’s hard. And each day that you distract yourself with mindless activities or less important tasks, you reinforce the neural pathways that make it harder for you to break your bad patterns and give concentrated attention to what really matters.
I watched Limitless with Bradley Cooper last night. Bradley’s character, Eddie Morra, is an unfocused writer in New York City. His life is crumbling around him. His girlfriend left him, his editor/book publisher has had enough and, most importantly, he’s given up on himself. He’s drinking, wasting his days and feeling like a worthless, pathetic excuse of the man he wants to be. But despite his dire condition, he can’t seem to get out of his own way. That is, until he gets a break. He runs into his former brother-in-law, a hustler with a shady persona, on the streets of Manhattan and ends up with a pill that changes everything. Feeling like he has nothing to lose, he swallows the pill. And then the magic happens. In 30 seconds, he is transformed. Yep, he really is. He makes things happen. He’s his optimal self on steroids accessing every nook and cranny of his brain (not just the measly 20% that the rest of us seem confined to). His best-selling book is written in hours and that’s just the beginning.
Unfortunately, to my knowledge, the “magic pill” that Eddie Morra swallowed is not available to the rest of us. But don’t despair. While you may not instantly transition to your fully-optimized self, there are things that you can do today to build a stronger and more resilient focus muscle. I say muscle because, like any other muscle in your body, if you activate and use it, it will become stronger. And if you don’t use it, it will atrophy. Use it or lose it, as they say. Your choice. Just make sure that you make the choice intentionally, because the stakes are high.
Since there is no magic pill; what can you do to increase your ability to focus on the important stuff? Here are some things that can work. Pick one to start with. Consider this your daily workout for your all-important focus muscle.
See & Define Yourself As “That” Person
I often use this strategy at the gym or during a cardio workout. I “see and define” myself as someone who is a badass when it comes to my physical training. I certainly don’t always feel that way when I am beginning a workout. But as I go about my routine, I might spot some gym equipment or someone else working really hard and I may have a passing thought like, “That is really hard.” What I do next is what matters. Instead of avoiding the hard thing, I will challenge myself to do it. For example, the other day, I was in the middle of a core workout and I thought about a type of burpee that is really hard. Instead of a simple push-up in the middle, it’s a triple push-up. That fleeting thought could have been easily dismissed as, “Yea, not today. I already have my workout plan.” Instead, I said, “Who are you?” The answer was a less-than-enthusiastic, “I’m a badass.” And what would a badass do? Exactly what I did…add a set of the killer burpees into my routine. I share this because I want it to be clear that I am usually not excited about making my workout harder in the moment. But I will tell you, when I’m done and I’ve pushed myself harder, I feel great. But it all starts with how I define myself. If I wanted to look and act like an average middle-aged guy, I would just go through the motions of my workouts because I would define and see myself as “that guy.” But that doesn’t work for me. I want to be one of the fittest athletes for my age and I want to be competitive with guys half my age. That’s how I define myself and what I aspire to be. I work harder to live up to that expectation, that vision of who I am and how I see myself.
Set Time Limits
We all know that our days can get away from us. Despite our good intentions, the important stuff can get pushed aside. Let’s face it, the really important stuff (the stuff that can change our trajectory or our life) is rarely urgent. It’s easy to let the important things slide in the moment or to not hold ourselves accountable to a disciplined timeline. We can always work on it tomorrow, right? If putting it off, whether intentionally or not, is a real struggle for you, I would encourage you to start with setting aside a block of time to focus on your most important goal. Start small and build. An important side note here is that when I say block time to focus, I mean block uninterrupted time where you are devoting all of your attention to the task at hand.
Perhaps you decide that today you will spend 15 minutes of uninterrupted time on your important activity. And you may find that your focus muscle is so weak that even 15 minutes feels like an eternity. That’s ok. It will get easier the more you do it. And the more you do it, the more you can increase the time you block. Today, it’s 15 minutes and tomorrow it could be 20. And before you know it, 20 minutes can become a half-day. Like any workout, consistency matters and will make it easier and easier. The added benefit is that your small accomplishments will start fueling you to do more. You’ll feel good and your momentum will create real sustainable progress.
Examine Your “Why”
When you set bold goals, there is always a reason. A reason that resonates and is important to you. What is it? Why is your big goal or dream important to you? You need to answer that question. And you need to write the answer down! Having challenged thousands of clients over the years to go through this exercise, my suggestion is to put effort into this process. In addition to writing it down, I think you should sit with your answer. In other words, let it marinate, go back to it, dig deeper, and then dig deeper again. This extra effort will help you articulate and fully understand your “why.” Is it truly important to you? Does it get you excited? Are you willing to do whatever it takes to make this dream a reality? The cold, hard truth is that if you’re not 100% behind it now, what will happen when the going gets tough? On the other hand, if you are all-in, there’s nothing that can stop you!
I was recently interviewing a candidate who wants me to coach him. In the conversation, I asked a lot of questions about his big goal including, “Why do you want to do this?” And “How important is this to you?” To which he responded, “Those are really good questions.” I wanted to assess his “why” and to see if it really was something that he was willing to do the hard work for. Because sometimes, we say we want something, but our heart isn’t really into it. In the case of my interviewee, he had attempted this big goal twice before without being successful. In a situation like his, I wanted to understand whether his failure was going to fuel his desire and motivation or whether he would repeat the pattern and fall short again. It’s my opinion that his “why” has to be revisited and fortified if he wants to successfully move forward.
Sometimes we convince ourselves that if we do this “thing,” it will be awesome. But when it comes to doing the hard work to get there, we feel uninspired and lack enough motivation or discipline to make it a reality. In his book, The Dip, Seth Godin points out that despite our initial excitement with an idea or endeavor, we will eventually fall into “the dip.” It’s that low point when things get hard (and get real). Perhaps other work or life demands seem daunting, our plate is full or overflowing and/or the path to our goal is littered with obstacles that were unforeseen when we started our journey. Regardless, we find ourselves in “the dip” and we are at an inflection point where we have to make a critical decision. Do we exit stage left and give up on this endeavor or do we push forward and overcome the obstacles in the way? In the latter choice is made, then we must determine how committed we are and the level of investment (time and energy) we are willing to make.
According to Godin, we are often making an unconscious decision on what level of performance we’re willing to make. And typically, it’s what he calls some level of mediocrity. We do enough to get by or to make it happen. But the real magic happens when we decide to be our best and to do whatever it takes to accomplish our goal at its ultimate level. That is when we step into our greatness. If your “why” has you fired up and determined to push yourself to a new and higher place, you’re on the right path. Constantly reminding yourself of the desired outcome and “why” it’s so important to you is a powerful ally to your ability to focus.
Talk To Yourself…The Right Way
It may sound hokie to you, but positive self-talk and affirmations work. Most of us are really good at letting negative thoughts and emotions fill our head space. It’s that built-in pessimist that tells us why we’re not good enough or why something wont’ work. I love a quote from Winston Churchill that says it well, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity and an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
Reaching our dreams and bringing our ideas to fruition is challenging enough without self-doubt and negative chatter bouncing off the walls in our head. Research actually indicates that positive self-talk is an important component of achievement. It starts with our beliefs which translates into our attitudes and thoughts. Those attitudes and thoughts will fill our minds and either give us positive fuel for our journey or choke our momentum and leave us stranded on the side of the road. The great car maker and industrialist, Henry Ford, famously said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t – you’re right.” Our thoughts and those inner dialogues we have with ourselves really do matter. Make sure you are feeding yourself a healthy diet of positive thoughts and you will see positive results.
Build The Right Support System
We know it doesn’t pay to be pessimistic. Although if you ask any pessimist why they feel the way they do, they will simply say that they are realistic or they’ve been around the block enough to know better. And if you dare share your grand vision with one of these naysayers, the first words you’ll hear from them is something along the lines of “You can’t do that!” or some equally negative or disheartening remark. So, if you want to embark on a bold adventure, whatever it might be, choose your confidants wisely. Surround yourself with people who will support and encourage you. Finding an Accountability Buddy can be a great strategy, particularly if you are embarking on a goal simultaneously with others. It could be that you’re training for a race, taking a class or embarking in some group activity where having a partner-in-crime can be a real boost.
If you need an extra level of accountability, consider working with a coach or mentor. Either can be a critical and vested partner in your success and can help you overcome shortfalls that may trip you up or slow you down along the way. One of the other key benefits of a coach is the accountability for taking action. Little is more motivating for focusing and making things happen than realizing that you have to call your coach to provide an update on your progress. In fact, if you’re a people pleaser, you will often work harder knowing that you don’t want to disappoint others who believe in you and want to see you succeed.
Don’t Delay & Succumb To The Law of Diminishing Intent
In his book, Leading An Inspired Life, Jim Rohn talks about tapping into your ability and avoiding the Law of Diminishing Intent. Specifically, he shares, “Engaging in genuine discipline requires that you develop the ability to take action. You don’t need to be hasty if it isn’t required, but you don’t want to lose much time. Here’s the time to act: when the idea is hot and the emotion is strong. Take action as soon as possible, before the feeling passes and before the idea dims. If you don’t, here’s what happens. You fall prey to the Law of Diminishing Intent. We intend to take action when the idea strikes us. But if we don’t translate that intention into action fairly soon, the urgency starts to diminish. And a month from now the passion is cold. A year from now it can’t be found.”
So the lesson is to take action. Be disciplined when the emotions are high and the idea is powerful. “Do it now!” is a powerful mantra that has been used by many successful doers!
As noted above, the important thing is to take action. You’ve invested the last few minutes reading this article. What stood out to you? What strategy for focusing and taking action would work well for you? And what can you do TODAY to build a little momentum? You’ve got this!